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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

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The large points first: Most happiness researchers agree that being surrounded by friends and family is one of the most crucial determinants of our well-being. Yet New York, as surprisingly neighborly a city as it is, is still predicated on a certain principle of atomization. Being married would help in this instance, obviously. But New York City’s percentage of unmarried adults is nine points higher than the national average, at 52 percent.

Then there’s the question of the hedonic treadmill, such a demonic little term, so vivid, so apt. Isn’t that what New York, the city of 24-hour gyms, is? More charitably put, one could say that New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come to to realize dreams. And of course we should feel indebted to the world’s dreamers (and I thank each and every one, for creating jet travel, indoor plumbing, The Simpsons), but there’s a line between heartfelt aspiration and a mindless state of yearning. Darrin McMahon, the author of Happiness: A History, shrewdly points out that the Big Apple is a perfect moniker for the city: “The apple is the cause of the fall of human happiness,” he says. “It’s the symbol of that desire for something more. Even though paradise was paradise, they were still restless.”

Which is where the subtle thesis of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice comes in. He argues, with terrible persuasiveness, that a superabundance of options is not a blessing but a certain recipe for madness. Nowhere do people have more choices than in New York. “New Yorkers should probably be the most unhappy people on the planet,” says Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore. “On every block, there’s a lifetime’s worth of opportunities. And if I’m right, either they won’t be able to choose or they will choose, and they’ll be convinced they chose badly.”

Economists have a term for those who seek out the best options in life. They call them maximizers. And maximizers, in practically every study one can find, are far more miserable than people who are willing to make do (economists call these people satisficers). “My suspicion,” says Schwartz, “is that all this choice creates maximizers.” If that’s the case, New York doesn’t just attract ambitious neurotics; it creates them. It also creates desires for things we don’t need—which, not coincidentally, is the business of Madison Avenue—and, as a corollary, pointless regrets, turning us all into a city of counterfactual historians, men and women who obsessively imagine different and better outcomes for ourselves.

My favorite study in Schwartz’s book was about jam. One weekend, a Columbia University researcher named Sheena Iyengar set out six different kinds in a high-end gourmet store. She invited people to try them, promising them a dollar off any jar they liked. The next weekend, she did the same, but laid out 24 different kinds. More people tried the jam the weekend there were 24, but only 3 percent of the samplers bought any. The weekend there were six jars, by contrast, 30 percent of the samplers bought some.

As I read this, it was hard not to think of New York City dating life. Everyone comes here for the jam. But no one buys it. Then I discover that Iyengar has examined speed dating, too, and similarly found that women who sat at smaller tables of potential mates were inclined to go on second dates 50 percent of the time, but if the group got bigger, they followed up on only a third of the candidates (though the men, curiously, remained content to follow up on 50 percent no matter how big the sample).

Choice creates unhappiness, argues Barry Schwartz, so “New Yorkers should probably be the unhappiest people on the planet. On every block, there’s a lifetime of opportunities.”

Other subtler points: Although many economists agree that money doesn’t make people happy, disparities in income make people miserable, according to most happiness literature. Happiness, in other words, “is less a function of absolute income than of comparative income,” as Gilbert puts it. “Now, if you live in Hallelujah, Arkansas,” he continues, “the odds are good that most of the people you know do something like you do and earn something like you earn and live in houses something like yours. New York, on the other hand, is the most varied, most heterogeneous place on earth. No matter how hard you try, you really can’t avoid walking by restaurants where people drop your monthly rent on a bottle of wine and store windows where shoes sit like museum pieces on gold pedestals. You can’t help but feel trumped. As it were.”

Yet most of us insist that New York is the only place we’d be happy, just as parents insist their children are their greatest sources of joy. Maybe the same phenomenon is at work: New York creates moments of transcendence, and that’s all that matters. Or maybe the belief that New York is the best place on earth is what Gilbert calls a super-replicator—a myth necessary to the flourishing of a culture, just as certain genes are necessary to the flourishing of the species. Gilbert theorized that our beliefs that money and children will make us happy are super-replicators—without them, civilization wouldn’t survive. Modern civilization wouldn’t survive without its large cities, either. (Take that, red states.)


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